It’s Not Just about the Cookie – Building Leadership in Philanthropy

For the third time, I was invited to serve as a jury member during the Future Leaders Fundraising Challenge at the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management, one of Europe’s leading business schools. The Challenge Week, described in greater detail in my “Reality TV Meets Philanthropy” post, is like a reality TV week boot camp for the incoming MBA candidates in order to put key management skills – marketing, production, sales, negotiation, strategic planning, team building and leadership – in practice while raising money for Save the Children Germany.

The students are divided into teams of 4-5 for the whole week, given a mentor who is a student in the preceding class, and then a brief for their daily challenge each morning. At the end of each day, the teams give a brief presentation, answer questions and then are evaluated by the panel of judges. The components of the challenge are purposely designed by leadership and human relations professor Jochen Menges and his team to remove any preconceived notions about what a business school education is about from the minds of these fresh-faced business students. This year, they were transported to an industrial bakery on the first day and – expected to bake.

Each challenge is designed to raise money either directly or indirectly for Save the Children Germany. During the week, they learn about the organisation, and its critical needs and strategy from Save the Children Board member Bidjan Nashat. This aspect is, of course, what brings me to the challenge. As consultants, the key to our success is listening to our clients and figuring out how they can meet their long-term goals within the parameters of a finite project. The students get exposure on how an organisation such as Save the Children operates and what challenges it faces while executing its critical work for vulnerable children worldwide.

The immediate goal is for these students to gain the essential management skills, however I see the other purpose of this challenge week as a long-term one: business school students are not only future leaders of the business world, but for the voluntary sector as well. They are future major donors, board members and managers of non-profit organisations. The next generation of donors has said that they want to become more hands on, apply their skills and see the impact of their contributions. Therefore, the better informed and prepared these future leaders are, the better quality impact their involvement will have in our sector.

Back in the bakery, students had to come up with a brand concept and design for the cookies that they were going to bake and later sell on the streets of Düsseldorf. The cookie sales would all count towards their total money raised for Save the Children. A recipe for disaster? At times, it might have seemed so as groups had to negotiate group dynamics in overcoming the obstacles. Time was ticking and nearly every group failed to calculate baking, cooling and packaging time in order to meet the deadline. Kilos of raw cookie dough remained and wasting food was not an option.

When Professor Menges invited me to judge this particular challenge, I wondered how the students would react. In the previous two challenges, he had his new students writing and illustrating children’s books and designing board games. And now they had to bake cookies. I wondered if the students would question why they had to draw, write children’s literature, design games and bake cookies? The point isn’t of course just about throwing the students in the deep end; it is also about using one’s inherent love of learning. We fundraisers thrive off of this other aspect of our jobs. We have the privilege to work with our colleagues and clients who are developing both humble and game-changing programs that are going to bring more arts education into at-risk preschool classrooms in Chicago, draw the topic of financial regulation more into the mainstream across Europe, and create a safer learning environment in classrooms across India.

We were of course delighted when the groups finished baking and presented their label design and concept along with their baked goods. We the jury had to listen, evaluate, and of course taste the cookies. The fun part is listening how the students interpreted their assignment. We also looked for how they incorporated some of Save the Children’s messaging in their product. After three times of serving as a judge in this challenge week, I know what I am looking for: a balance of a clear concept, creativity, risk taking, and authenticity. As we already know as fundraisers the art of storytelling makes any message more articulate and powerful. I can tell you that the winner of this challenge – and the competition – did incorporate this message appropriately.

On the final day of the challenge, each group had to bring their cookies to the street and sell as many as they could. In the end, they raised more than €6,000 in cookie sales, and through all three of the Leadership Fundraising Challenge weeks, WHU’s business students have raised more than €100,000 for Save the Children Germany.

During the closing reception, one of the students approached me and told me that he couldn’t believe that I fundraised as a profession. Why? I asked. “Raising money is so hard!” I was flattered, but I told him, “It’s not just about the cookie. Each cookie makes a difference, but it really is about the process.”